Is it fresh? The bark has started to brown, as have the shavings below, and the rub is probably a couple of days oldOne of the most common questions posed on internet forums by new-chum deer hunters seems to be, ‘I found this while out looking for deer; is this a deer’s rub tree?’ Usually it is impossible to give a definite answer as the photograph is most commonly of a stringy bark tree with ‘damage’ to the bark not far above the ground. In the absence of other information all than can be said is ‘It might be, or it could be made by a wombat, feral pig, black cockatoo or animal unknown!’
Hunters, both new-chums and experienced ones, focus so much on rub trees because they reflect a unique aspect of a male deer’s life – that they grow a new set of antlers every year that are used to mark territories, practice sparring and to help establish their place in the pecking order.
As velvet-covered antlers harden and lose their blood supply in response to a surge of testosterone, stags and bucks start to thrash vegetation and prepare for the coming breeding season. In doing so they very quickly scrape off the velvet to reveal the hard, white bone underneath which soon takes on colour from the vegetation. Once the velvet is removed stags and bucks will continue to rub so long as they remain in hard antler - about eight months in their annual 12-month cycle.
So, just how do you identify a deer rub? Most rubs in deer country are easy to identify despite the fact that they can be on a great range of vegetation types – from annual weeds, to tussocks, shrubs, saplings and all the way through to large trees. Less substantial vegetation will be ‘thrashed’ and will reflects this, being twisted and broken, and depending on type, with bark removed. They will probably only be given a touch-up once and not be visited repeatedly. Trees offer more resistance and will almost invariably show gouges where antler points have scored the bark, often exposing the underlying sapwood. Trees may also show evidence of repeated visits over many years; old scarring, healing scars and more recent scarring.
So, what about non-rubs? In farm country saplings are often broken down, thrashed and used to scratch an itch by cattle. Such saplings can look like a deer rub but usually distinctive hair on broken twigs or cow pats and tracks in the vicinity make their identification obvious. Other animals likely to cause confusion are feral pigs, wombats, cockatoos and probably others, but again a little detective work should allow a decision to be made. ‘Is this a known deer area?’ and ‘Is there other evidence of deer in the area such as droppings and tracks?’ for example.
Rub trees will be found throughout a deer’s home range, but will likely occur more commonly in areas that are the focus of their activities – on game trails, around wallows or rutting areas and around feeding areas. I suspect that, at least with sambar, strongly scented species such as wild cherries, pines and rock wax flower are favoured as rub trees – presumably they assist in spreading an individual’s scent around its patch.
Any hunter who looks at a rub tree wants to know whether it was made by a big buck or stag. Sometimes, the decision is easy, as the rub will be made by a spikey – short parallel antler scores in the bark. More mature animals with score the bark with their coronets, brow tines and other tines depending on their species. With sambar, this will often result in a patch of concentrated damage low on the three trunk and then more damage higher up, often with well-defined individual scrapes made by the top tines. Sambar hunters tend to get very excited with fresh rubs that approach two metres from the ground!
A key to successful hunting is the ability to interpret sign left by an animal, whether it is the freshness of tracks or droppings and how recent a shrub or tree has been thrashed or rubbed. Very old rubs will be obvious – any exposed sapwood will be grey and any damaged bark will have either healed completely or have turned dark brown. More recent rubs may cause a bit of head scratching – the damaged bark may have started to turn brown and any shavings at the foot of the tree may likewise have started to brown off. A simple test that gives an indication of how fresh a rub is only takes a few seconds and involves making your own mark next to the genuine article – if they look the same or very similar it is likely to be ‘game on’.
Australia’s six deer species can be in hard antler at different times of the year which influences when fresh rubs can be found. Fallow and red deer are in hard antler from February to September, rusa from May to December, hog deer from January to August while chital can be in hard antler at any time but favouring December to August and sambar can also be in hard antler at any time but most are hard from May to December.